For Immediate Release
February 11, 1999

Contact: Tom MacKenzie
404/679-7291

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Withdraws
From Savannah Harbor Deepening Stakeholder Group

Citing unacceptable impacts to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today withdrew from the Stakeholder Evaluation Group, or SEG, formed by the Georgia Ports Authority in 1998 to examine the environmental impact of the proposed deepening of the Savannah Harbor.

In a letter to Doug Marchand, Executive Director of the Georgia Ports Authority, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Sam D. Hamilton advised that the Service will withdraw after attending the first two meetings of the Stakeholder Evaluation Group.

"The cumulative impacts of past harbor deepening have already resulted in unacceptable, and largely unmitigated, salinity intrusion into Savannah National Wildlife Refuge," wrote Hamilton. "We have seen no information or data that would indicate that additional Savannah Harbor deepening can be accomplished without compounding these unacceptable impacts."

Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1927, originally contained about 6,000 acres of tidal freshwater marsh, which is a rare, natural community that is critical to the productive and valuable Savannah River estuary. Much of the tidal freshwater marsh on the Atlantic coast of the United States has been lost due to salt water intrusion caused by dredging and harbor deepening activities. Today, freshwater marsh accounts for only about one-tenth of the marshlands on the U.S. Atlantic coast; however, tidal freshwater marsh has far greater plant diversity and a higher wildlife food value than saltmarsh, making it far more valuable than saltmarsh as wildlife habitat. At the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, 53 percent of these rare freshwater marshes have been lost due to several deepening projects in the Savannah Harbor over the last 40 years. The deepening proposal currently being considered would degrade 42 percent of the remaining tidal freshwater marsh. The deepening proposal would also lead to pressure for additional use of refuge lands for dredged spoil disposal. Currently, more than 600 acres of refuge lands are used for spoil disposal.

The harbor deepening project would also impact striped bass, an important sport fish. Prior to 1977, the Savannah River supported the most plentiful striped bass population in the State of Georgia. Striped bass brood stock from the Savannah River were used to produce fish for reservoir stockings throughout the state. Pursuit of these reservoir fish generated $100 million annually to the local economies from fishermen.

Production of striped bass eggs in the Savannah River estuary has declined by about 95 percent, requiring intensive management by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Now striper brood fish are removed from the reservoirs and used to spawn fish to be placed in the Savannah River in an attempt to restore a reproducing population of striped bass. The proposed harbor deepening project may render the restoration of striped bass to the Savannah River unfeasible.

The role of the SEG is to make recommendations to the Ports Authority concerning the final harbor depth. The Service originally joined the SEG in 1998, when Congress was considering passage of the Water Resources and Development Act of 1998 (WRDA), a bill that would have authorized the harbor deepening prior to completion of the National Environmental Policy Act process. The National Environmental Policy Act process requires a thorough analysis of the environmental impacts of federally sponsored projects. Because the Water Resources and Development Act would have authorized the project before the National Environmental Policy Act process was considered, the SEG was formed to ensure that consideration of environmental impacts still occurred. Subsequently, the Water Resources and Development Act did not pass in Congress.

AIn view of the fact that this legislation was not enacted, the reason (for the Service) to participate in the SEG is no longer valid," wrote Hamilton. The Service will instead resume its responsibility to analyze the environmental impacts prior to project authorization.

While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will not participate in the SEG, the Service will continue to work with Georgia Ports Authority under federal law requiring the Service to review and comment on federally sponsored projects that may impact fish and wildlife resources.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish and wildlife and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 93-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System comprised of more than 500 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts.

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Release #: R99-019


1999 News Releases

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